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Jewish World Review May 22, 2002 / 11 Iyar, 5762

Andy Rooney

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The history of history | Last week, I attended a ceremony at the school I went to growing up-or as far as I got, anyway-for the dedication of several large brass plaques bearing the names of graduates who served in the military during this country's 20th century wars.

The emphasis was on the World War II plaque because it bore the most names. Many of us who had served were there. Someone pointed out how curious it was that the school had waited 60 years before honoring its World War II heroes. (The word "heroes" is used with increasing abandon as the years between the action and the present expand.)

We're all more interested in our own world, our own history than in anyone else's. For years now I've been surprised and pleased by the attention being paid to WW II because it was mine. The interest in WW II was already growing before Tom Brokaw wrote "The Greatest Generation," which is the best-seller of the decade. The movie "Saving Private Ryan" enhanced the memory of WW II. My own book on the topic, "My War," has sold 175,000 copies and I'm acutely aware of how lucky I am to have had the cathartic experience of writing it.

I say "lucky" because there aren't many people who experienced WW II who haven't thought of writing a book about it. I get 50 letters a year from veterans who want to write a book, or have started writing a book, or who've finished a rough manuscript about their wartime experiences. They ask for advice on how to get their work published. It's sad for me because most of those efforts are sincere but seriously short of literary merit or any general interest.

The question in my mind about both world wars has always been why my children, born after World War II ended, know so much more about it than I ever knew about World War I. That conflict ended the year I was born. It is not just our children, either. Everyone's children know more about WW II than they know about WW I, and the only possible answer is that the methods of preserving historical information are better than they were after WW I.

Our knowledge of ancient events is based on flimsy evidence, and often myth substitutes for history. Little was written down in ancient times and no visual or oral recordings were made to provide a record of events. What historical information we have from ancient times is based on twice-told tales handed down by word of mouth until paper was invented.

There were some crude motion pictures taken of some of the events of World War I, but photography was still young and most of the sound-recording devices we have now were unknown.

It's easy to be pessimistic about civilization, but looking at the progress we've made in the past 100 years in our ability to preserve historical data is encouraging. If knowing history prevents our having to repeat it, then our ability to record the present for future generations is good.

My memories of the history courses I took are of wars and the evil deeds of modern and ancient kings, dictators and presidents. Wars, crimes and disasters are always the biggest part of recorded history. Historians don't pass down long narrative accounts of peaceful years because they're dull and no one would read them.

It's a pretty good world Americans have had to live in for the past 80 years. I hope that when future generations are exposed to the history of the era they get something besides war, Watergate and Monica Lewinsky.

Comment on JWR contributor Andy Rooney's column by clicking here.

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